LONDON (AFP): Barbs flew and derisive laughter rang out as the Conservative contenders battling to succeed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson clashed in a live TV debate Sunday, heading into a pivotal week for the acrimonious race.
Rising global temperatures were among the policy areas under contention after Britain’s climate minister, COP26 president Alok Sharma, threatened to resign if the winner retreats from the government’s “net zero” target.
With Britain facing a record-breaking heatwave this week and dire warnings of loss of life, only frontrunner Rishi Sunak pledged to maintain green taxes to help pay for the legally enshrined aim of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Former finance minister Sunak was repeatedly assailed by the four other contenders in the ITV debate, the second of three before the two finalists are submitted to Tory rank-and-file members who will decide their new leader by September 5.
But he shot back with some of the debate’s most wounding lines, attacking Foreign Secretary Liz Truss for her promises of a borrowing binge to fund tax cuts and help ease a cost-of-living crisis.
“This something-for-nothing economics isn’t conservatism, it’s socialism,” he said.
Sunak blamed for inflation
Sunak also attacked Truss for her political U-turns down the years, from being a Liberal Democrat to becoming a Tory, and from campaigning for UK membership of the European Union in 2016 to enthusiastically backing Brexit today.
“I was just wondering which one you regretted most?” he queried.
An hour before the debate, Sunak posted a new campaign video shot in vintage black-and-white style to remind Tories about how he went against the party leadership early on to support Brexit — drawing a pointed contrast to Truss.
But the wealthy Sunak faced tough questioning about his tax affairs, his earlier possession of a Green Card for US residency, and his wife’s prior status as a “non-domiciled” resident of Britain who was shielded from UK taxes.
Truss sought to blame Sunak for Britain’s surging inflation and insisted on her own personal integrity. “I say what I mean and I mean what I say,” she said.
The leadership race was triggered after Johnson was forced to announce his resignation in the face of a cabinet revolt sparked in large part by Sunak, following months of scandal.
The debate came after a survey of Tory members gave a surprise double-digit lead to outsider Kemi Badenoch.
Truss was second, narrowly ahead of former grassroots favourite Penny Mordaunt and Sunak, according to the unscientific poll by the ConservativeHome website.
Badenoch and Mordaunt angrily clashed at the ITV debate about transgender rights.
Mordaunt, who was briefly Britain’s first woman defence secretary before she was fired by Johnson, pushed back against claims that she was lying over her position about rights for transgender women — a hot-button issue on the Tory right.
Mordaunt said the attacks were “unedifying”, adding: “All attempts to paint me as an out-of-touch individual will fail.”
Badenoch, a former junior minister with no cabinet experience, is running on an “anti-woke”, right-wing platform and has said the net zero goal amounts to “unilateral economic disarmament” by Britain.
Mordaunt claimed that polling showed she was the only one of the contenders who could beat opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer in a general election — which in fact is not borne out by every survey.
The other candidates hooted in derision. Sunak said “that’s simply not true” and backbencher Tom Tugendhat shouted “nonsense”.
On Monday, Conservative MPs will hold another round of balloting to eliminate the bottom-placed candidate — likely to be Tugendhat — before arriving at the final two by Wednesday.
Then the last two standing will appear before grassroots members across the country at a series of hustings, explaining why they are best positioned to confront challenges including the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine.
They must also heal Tory wounds inflicted by the numerous controversies of Johnson’s premiership.
All five contenders were asked to raise their hands if they would agree to have Johnson in their cabinet. None did
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